Sirani, Elizabetta (1638–1665)

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Sirani, Elizabetta (1638–1665)

Italian painter. Name variations: Elisabeth Sirani. Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1638; died in August 1665; daughter of Gian Andrea Sirani (1610–1670, an artist); never married; no children.

Praised as "la gloria del sesso donnesco" by Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a 17th-century biographer of Bolognese artists, Elizabetta Sirani created some 170 works, including paintings, drawings, and etchings, before her untimely and suspicious death at the age of 27. Consciously modeling her style on that of Guido Reni (1575–1642), the most influential Bolognese painter of the time, Sirani was known for her incredible speed, once completing a Madonna and Child portrait for an out-of-town visitor in time for it to dry and be taken home with him. Sirani's artistic association with Reni, in whose tomb she was buried, and the ease with which she dashed off her pictures, made her a local celebrity and something of a tourist attraction.

The artist was born in 1638, the daughter of Gian Andrea Sirani, a Bolognese artist who also worked in the style of Reni. It was Malvasia, however, rather than Sirani's father, who discovered her gifts and encouraged her to paint. She turned professional at age 17 and by 1662 had about 90 works to her credit. She finished another 80 or so before her death, working mostly for private patrons, although she also had some public commissions, including a large Baptism for the chapel of a Bolognese church.

As Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin point out, Sirani's mastery of Reni's technique and idiom was quite extraordinary, particularly since the young artist received no personal instruction from either Reni or her father:

She emulated Reni's elevated sentimentality, his avoidance of any true psychological drama, his preference for subjects with static figures, and above all his intention to create beautiful images rather than to move the spectator deeply or make strong moral statements.

They go on to note that Sirani also mastered many of Reni's techniques, and even surpassed him on some occasions. "Her drapery forms tend to be more sculptural, more angular, and more complex than his," they write, "her tonal range is darker, her colors deeper and richer than his were after 1630; her facial expressions are less bland, more particular." In composition, as well, Sirani moved away from Reni, using her own designs. The brush-and-wash technique of her drawings was also an individual invention, unlike any standard drawing methods of the time.

Of Sirani's impressive output, much of which has yet to be studied and evaluated, three paintings—Judith Triumphant (1658), The Penitent Magdalene in the Wilderness (1660), and Porcia Wounding her Thigh (1664)—are representative. Sutherland and Nochlin believe that the latter two paintings alone set a standard of quality that equals that of Reni's best works. The last work, which takes its subject from the story of Portia in Plutarch's Life of Brutus, is unique in its representation of the courage and heroism of a woman, a point of view seldom seen in the visual arts of the time. Painted in the year before her death, it is also one of the artist's most beautifully executed works. Notable among Sirani's etchings are St. Eustace Kneeling before a Crucifix (1656) and The Beheading of St. John (1657).

The sudden death of the artist in her prime immediately aroused suspicion that she had been poisoned. Her maid became the primary suspect after admitting to putting a packet of what she believed to be sugar and cinnamon into her mistress' soup after receiving it from an unidentified woman. After a hasty trial, conducted unfairly according to Malvasia, the maid was exiled. An autopsy did reveal that Sirani had holes in her stomach, although they may indeed have been ulcers, then impossible to diagnose. Whatever the cause, Sirani's early death begs the question of how she would have evolved as an artist had she lived longer. Sutherland and Nochlin believe that she would have developed a more forceful personal style and point to her later works as "stronger technically, better drawn, more firmly constructed." They cite Madonna and Child, completed in the last year of her life, as "beautifully composed" and expressing more genuine feeling than Reni ever conveyed.


Harrap's Illustrated Dictionary of Art & Artists. Kent, Eng.: Harrap's Reference, 1990.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. L.A. County Museum of Art: Knopf, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts